BEREA, Ohio — The smile is completely genuine, and never goes away — even when the subject turns to the most vexing and depressing subject with which every Browns fans is so acutely aware.
Nope, it’s all real for Joe Thomas, whose consistently brilliant play for the last nine years stands in direct and staggering contrast to the revolving door of failed coaches and quarterbacks this team has become known for since the franchise was re-established in Cleveland in 1999.
It is another year with another coach — Hue Jackson — and another quarterback — Robert Griffin III, who was officially named the starter on Monday. And coming off a 3-13 season that led to the firing of Mike Pettine, it could be another long rebuilding year for the Browns. Yet Thomas, standing beneath a bright blue sky after a morning walk-through and wearing a floppy fisherman’s hat and his No. 73 jersey, looks and feels as happy as if he’d just come off a Super Bowl season.
This is no put-on, either. To those who have been around Thomas throughout his NFL career, they know his smile and his optimistic attitude are authentic. This despite the fact he has never been to the playoffs and has had only one winning season.
The obvious question is this: With all the constant upheaval, how the heck does he do it and why is he not demanding to get the heck out?
Some early advice he got from veteran teammates and the wisdom of Vince Lombardi have sustained Thomas. Despite playing for a team whose name has become synonymous with losing and dysfunction, Thomas has been the polar opposite: magnificent. He is widely considered the best left tackle in the game. And it really isn’t very close for second.
“I was very lucky early in my career, because we had a lot of good veterans around the offensive line that took me under their wing and taught me the right way to approach the game and practice,” said Thomas, who credited center Hank Fraley and tackle Ryan Tucker for helping with his mindset. “They really stressed to me that your job is the same, no matter what the score is, no matter what your record is, no matter where your team’s standing is, if you’re playing for the playoffs or if the playoffs are out of the picture. Your job is to block that guy right across from you and to always keep that in perspective.”
Remarkably, Thomas has produced nothing but exceptional play, despite the team’s failures and seemingly endless roster and coaching changes over the years. Thomas said he hasn’t counted the number of starting quarterbacks he has blocked for since joining the Browns as the No. 3 overall pick in 2007. We’ll do it for him: Griffin will become the 17th. The 17th!
The Giants have had only one starter — Eli Manning — in that span.
Jackson is his sixth different coach, and the Browns have now had seven different offensive coordinators the last seven seasons.
Oh, and there have been six different general managers along the way.
And two different owners.
That’s no way to run an NFL franchise.
And yet, the smile remains.
“I couldn’t get wrapped up and start thinking like a fan,” he said. “You start thinking like a fan, and you ride those waves of emotion, and it can really affect your play. So, if you want to be a steady player who just gets his job done every day, you can’t ever look at the scoreboard. You just have to always think about winning your individual battle. In the end, if everyone wins their individual battle, you’re going to win the game.”
Unfortunately for Thomas, wins have been few and far between. After his rookie season, when the Browns went 10-6 but failed to reach the playoffs, the team hasn’t won more than seven games in a season.
And that’s where Lombardi comes in. Growing up in Milwaukee, Thomas was steeped in Packers tradition, even if he didn’t live during the time the legendary coach presided over an NFL dynasty. But Lombardi lore is passed down from generation to generation, and Thomas knows all the salient facts and traditions. And quotes, one of which has always resonated with him.
“Gentlemen, we will chase perfection, and we will chase it relentlessly, knowing all the while we can never attain it,” Lombardi once told his players. “But along the way, we shall catch excellence.”
“I think that’s what keeps me interested in and engaged in every practice and game, and that’s chasing the perfect pass set or the perfect run-block technique,” he said. “It’s something that’s unattainable, but it’s like Lombardi saying where you chase perfection and you find greatness.”
Thomas has found greatness, and has kept it throughout a wondrous nine-year career. The failures of the teams he has played on only amplifies his achievements.
At 31, he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll play.
“I’ve always said I’ll play as long as I feel healthy, I’m playing well, I enjoy it and somebody wants me,” he said. “Whether that’s 10 years or 20 years, I have no idea. I’ll just take things one year at a time. You play 10 years in the NFL, and I feel like I’m just stealing at this point in my career because I’m probably playing longer than 99 percent of guys who are able to play. I just try to take it one day at a time. I feel all right today, so maybe ask tomorrow.”
Eventually, Thomas will call it a career, and no matter how many more losing seasons are ahead of him, he’ll one day be honored with the ultimate tribute for an NFL player. He’ll be standing on a stage about an hour’s drive south of where he’s standing now and accept his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
“When I was a rookie, I said I wanted to go to the Hall of Fame, and people kind of laughed at me,” he said. “That was always my goal and it hasn’t changed, but you don’t want to get wrapped up in stuff like that. At this point, it’s out of your control. What you do control is what you do on a daily basis, and that’s what I focus on.”
Since Joe Thomas was drafted by the Browns in 2007, there has been a revolving door of starting quarterbacks, coaches and general managers in Cleveland. A look at the lists: